Who is the customer for your internal quality audits?
Last week I was in an automotive manufacturing plant (a very large one) helping to lead a quality systems assessment. It’s purpose is to give the client feedback of how they can improve their quality by improving their quality systems, and linking them more clearly with the voice of the customer. It is based on what we call the 4 loops of quality, which are increasing loops that monitor and feedback on process effectiveness ranging from the individual work level to the voice of the customer.
Part of this process included the audit bay, and it gave me a chill down my spine. The reason is that many, many years ago when I was in an automotive plant, one of my consistently most frustrating feelings came from visits to the audit bay. Anyone called to the audit bay was going to get bad news. We looked for anything we could think of to delay the visit. It wasn’t only going to mean more work, which many of us couldn’t afford, but probably a lot of time being talked to like a rotten 7-year-old who just put a tack on the teacher’s chair – it was the adult version of detention. I hesitantly stepped inside the audit bay.
The process of the audit bay is to review a relatively small sample of vehicles from the perspective of the customer and both score and give feedback to the organization. It is the voice of the customer, coming from inside the process. It is meant to be unbiased and undistracted from multiple competing objectives. That doesn’t sound so bad. So why did my heart beat a little faster just by going back into an audit bay?
Because sometimes the quality organization forgets who their customer is. Even when their purpose is to be the voice of the customer, the end-customer, the consumer, is not their customer. The people in the process – those who design stuff, make stuff, and move stuff – are their customer. They need to be the voice of the customer that makes the people in the process better able to meet those needs, to deliver value, to satisfy and delight customers.
Yet too often the behaviors of the quality organization reflect a different posture. Those in the process are perceived as those who are out to hurt the customer, and our job in the quality organization is to be the bad cop to protect the customer from these criminals. Of course it’s never said that say, but if you observe the behaviors, you could conclude that this was the motivation.
Have you ever seen someone passing someone else in the hallway, but as they approach they very visibly move to the other side of the hallway in purposeful avoidance? Of course, it’s done as a friendly joke. But like all jokes, there is the basis of truth that makes it funny. The prevailing attitude by those in the process is that the quality organization is not there to help, just there to criticize.
If process owners and the quality functions do not have a relationship of mutual respect, open communication, and cooperation, then the quality function does not serve the organization as needed. The quality function must be clear about their customer; it is not the consumer. Their customer is those in the process. Providing value is presenting useful feedback that helps improve the process. Providing value is helping connect cause and effect for better problem resolution. Providing value is ensuring systems work to provide in-process feedback in a timely manner. Providing value is helping to sort out the right top priorities of the many things that require improvement.
In an automotive factory, the voice of the customer is often presented through functions such as the audit bay. But every organization has some mechanism for the voice of the customer. If nothing else, it becomes the front-line says force who engages with the customer on a regular basis. Or the call center for an online business. Or any other function. The question is…
Where the voice of the customer exists in your organization, is it providing value to others in the organization to help improve the outcomes?